It’s always at around this time of year when we start to try and figure out where Arsenal stand in regards to whether or not they can compete for silverware in May.
You don’t want to start too soon, because fluke results can always happen and you need a decent sample size of performances to be able to gauge where Arsenal are in regards to their rivals. But after 20 games into a season, it’s usually possible to surmise if they’re good enough or not to challenge for a league or European trophy.
But this year is different. We could micro-analyse every game so far, every performance, every goal, every injury. Yet even after all that, we would only come to the same conclusion every time; it’s impossible to tell.
This year, more than any in recent history, is full of random paradoxes that are having a huge effect on Arsenal’s season, and each one of them is more baffling than the last. How are we supposed to work out if Arsenal are in good shape to win a first league title since 2004 when the following have already happened:
1. Arsenal are 12 points clear of Chelsea but two points behind Leicester City, despite losing at Chelsea and beating Leicester 5-2 away.
2. Arsenal are behind Manchester United in the league, despite playing the best 20 minute spell of football seen in the Premier League this season against them.
3. Arsenal beat Bayern Munich in the group stages of the Champions League, yet need a two goal victory at Olympiakos to qualify for the knockout rounds.
4. Tottenham are in the middle of their longest unbeaten run during the Premier League, at 12 games (Bless. Just 37 to go.). They’ve lost one game at home this season… to Arsenal.
5. Liverpool have already sacked a manager, are six points behind Arsenal and their best player can’t stay healthy enough to get on the pitch… and they just beat Manchester City 4-1 away.
It’s hard enough to figure out if a team is playing well or not as it is, it’s even harder when random anomalies occur for no reason. Exhibit A: Our home form. Take the following examples:
Here’s the list of players that were involved in the 3-0 victory over Manchester United: Cech, Bellerin, Gabriel, Mertesacker, Monreal, Coquelin, Cazorla, Özil, Ramsey, Alexis, Walcott. The subs who came on were Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gibbs and Giroud.
Here’s the list of players that were involved in the 2-3 loss to Olympiakos: Ospina, Bellerin, Koscielny, Gabriel, Gibbs, Coquelin, Cazorla, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Özil, Alexis, Walcott. The subs who came on were Campbell, Ramsey and Mertesacker.
When the only difference in the two lists are Ospina for Koscielny and Campbell for Monreal, with a subtitute appearance by Giroud the only change up front, yet the performances are diametrically opposed, it goes to show just how weird a season this has been, and how impossible it is to judge how this group of players will perform during the next few months.
The problem with this is that there are a few extremely pressing issues that need sorting out as soon as possible, and answers are not forthcoming.
After Francis Coquelin succombed to an injury that the world and his dog predicted would occur, we find ourselves with one midfielder that we trust to play as a defensive midfielder with any competence, and a treatment room full of players who we’ve assumed could do a job there.
Arsene Wenger has intimated that he’s willing to buy another midfielder in the January transfer window, but the feeling that it might be too little too late can’t be avoided. Yet at the same time, with players like Jack Wilshere constantly on the verge of fulfilling his potential, buying someone to stand in his way of the first team would be a huge call.
Then there’s the inconsistent form. When a team can play as well as it did against Dinamo Zagreb, yet that same team can lose focus defensively in the way it did at West Brom, who is to blame? The manager is only culpable for so much, if players play with differing efforts for different games, that’s on them, not the manager.
We hear all the time from the players after a defeat, saying that a reaction is needed, yet Arsenal have lost seven games already this season, and only two of them were against opposition of at least similar ability. Reactions wouldn’t be needed if the team performed consistently. The only player who can say that he’s played well all season so far is Mesut Özil. Even Alexis Sanchez has had spells of games where he has been off form.
Instead of being at the point of the season when we can be sure of where we stand, we’re more uncertain than ever. This Arsenal team, with a little bit of luck, could win the league with a bit to spare. However, if that luck turns bad, they could easily finish 7th.
It is the very essence of the Arsenal paradox, in that we’re disappointed that they’re not playing better, but delighted to be in the title hunt. We’re annoyed with some of the performances, yet also amazed by some of the performances. How Arsene Wenger tries to solve it will either be his last hurrah, or his last throw of the dice.
Of that, we can have no doubt.